Winds Raise Fire Threat as Power Cuts Feared in California

By Brian K. Sullivan and Mark Chediak | November 18, 2019

Almost 32,000 customers could lose power Sunday as dry, gusty winds whip up critical wildfire conditions across almost 6,000 square miles in Southern California, with another 250,000 affected in the northern part of the state later in the week.

The winds gusting as high as 50 miles (80 kilometers) per hour could affect mountain and coastal areas, including Ventura, Los Angeles and San Diego counties, putting 2.6 million people at risk in 5,774 square miles, the National Weather Service said. About 31,975 customers could have their power turned off because of the fire threat, according to Edison International’s Southern California Edison’s website.

While not as severe, the threat remains elevated through Monday.

“If fire ignition occurs, conditions may be favorable for extreme fire behavior which would threaten life and property,” the weather service said.

The state’s largest utility, PG&E Corp., is warning that it may cut power to about 250,000 customers in the North Bay, North Valley and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada starting on Wednesday due to a forecast of dry, windy weather. The areas — some set for their driest seasons in six decades — could be impacted by the orchestrated blackouts designed to prevent power lines from sparking wildfires.

The utility hasn’t yet made a decision on whether to call a public safety power shutoff, known as a PSPS. “The weather forecasts continue to be dynamic, so the extent of wind and PSPS impacts may change,” it said in a statement.

PG&E provoked widespread outrage last month after conducting a series of mass blackouts that left some customers in the dark for days. The utility’s equipment caused fires in Northern California in 2017 and 2018, saddling it with an estimated $30 billion in liabilities and eventually forcing it into bankruptcy. It’s strategy of pre-emptive outages this year has drawn anger from customers and state lawmakers who say they’ve gone too far.

Sempra Energy also said it’s monitoring the weather, where adverse conditions may lead to the possibility of a power shutoff.

California has had little rain for months, and more than 81% of the state is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska. The parched plants and soils, along with the winds called Santa Anas, make fall one of the worst times for fires there.

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